For better or for worse, the flavor in a cup of tea is dependent on more than just the leaves. A brew may taste different in the store than when brewed at home, or at work, or on vacation. When a tea that doesn’t live up to expectations, it might be easy to write off the whole batch and toss a spoonful of sugar into each cup, or simply let it languish in the back of the cupboard. Before abandoning hope, try these tips to ensure you’re seeing the best side of your tea leaves.
1. Consider your palate.
Has a tried and tested favorite let you down? Single origin leaves can change in flavor from year to year depending on the weather and growth process, but your palate is also subject to changing conditions. Have you eaten strongly flavored food recently? Do you have a cold? Symptoms like a stuffy nose can have a dramatic impact on the taste buds, changing how flavors and aromas are received on the tongue.
2. Adjust your serving size.
Loose leaf tea is endlessly flexible, and the strength of each cup can be easily adjusted using more or less tea per volume of water. Different styles of tea, however, can have different densities depending on whether the leaves are chopped into small pieces, rolled into tight bundles, or twisted into long tendrils. Densely packed leaves require less volume to achieve the same concentration of flavor, which can result in some confusion when switching from one style to another.
Generally, we like to use one or two grams of tea per ounce of water in your brewing vessel, and we always recommend weighing your leaves. If your brew is bitter, vegetal, or dry after even a short infusion, try using less tea for a sweeter flavor. On the other hand, if every infusion tastes like hot water, try using more leaf to up the ante.
To better understand the impact of serving sizes, watch Alice compare our method of brewing with common Chinese practices in this video:
3. Adjust your water temperature.
Water temperature is commonly overlooked in the process of everyday brewing, but many teas, especially delicate, lightly oxidized styles like green tea or white tea, can produce radically different flavors when brewed at different temperatures. If a lightly oxidized tea is excessively grassy or bitter, boiling water may be the culprit. This problem is easily solved by letting the water cool to a sippable temperature before pouring it over the tea leaves.
Dark teas, however (like oolongs from Wuyi, black teas, or pu-erh teas) must be brewed with very hot water in order to properly extract flavor. With these teas, low water temperatures are likely to result in a brew that tastes weak or watery. Luckily, temperature measurements don’t need to be very precise. Experiment with variations to find what works best for your favorite teas.
4. Adjust your steeping time.
If water temperature is difficult to manage, adjustments to steeping time can often compensate to make a better brew. Separating the liquor from the leaves more quickly is a simple way to prevent the brew from becoming bitter or vegetal. Similarly, water that isn’t quite hot enough can usually extract full flavors given a little extra time.
Long, hot infusions, recommended for many teas, are designed to draw out flavor all at once, usually in a large pot to produce many servings. But this style of brewing can also draw out tannins and other bitter compounds. Instead, we recommend limiting each infusion to one or two minutes at most, and steeping tea leaves multiple times to fully extract flavor without bitterness.
5. Try different teaware.
Along with the brewing method, the material of a teapot or gaiwan can also influence flavor. Plastic and metal brewing vessels are the most common offenders, since they can absorb the qualities of strong teas and impart them to more delicate brews. Glazed ceramic or glass are the best options for brewing a wide variety of teas, since their non-porous surface is flavor neutral.
When trying new teas, we like to check quality in a traditional Chinese gaiwan. Watch Alice demonstrate in this video:
Unglazed teapots, like those from Yixing, are actually designed to be seasoned with one particular tea, but may still suit some teas better than others. If a tea that tasted great in a gaiwan has lost its sparkle in an unglazed pot, the slightly porous clay might not be suited to that particular style. Luckily, a single serving of tea leaves is not enough to season unglazed clay - feel free to try several teas in a new Yixing before dedicating it to the best candidate.
6. Try a different water source.
Sometimes, a favorite tea seems lackluster in a new location. With so many variables, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what’s wrong, but the culprit is often the water quality. Even when flavor differences are subtle in plain water, the mineral content of the water used to brew can change the process of extraction.
Finding a new water source can be a challenge, but a simple filtering pitcher can go a long way toward improving the flavor of hard water. For the truly curious, experimenting with varieties of bottled water can provide some insight into what works best for each tea. Note that fully purified water is not necessarily ideal - a lack of natural minerals can make tea taste muddy or flat.
7. Try a different tea.
If none of these strategies has worked to improve the flavor of your tea, it may come down to the leaves themselves. Low quality leaves, picked during the hot summer months, may be lacking in complex flavor compounds, while chopped or broken leaves can release bitter tannins more quickly thanks to increased surface area.
How do we choose teas that don’t get bitter? Learn more about harvest seasons and our sourcing process with Alice in this video:
Teas can also go stale over long-term storage. Despite the popularity of certain aged teas styles like pu-erh, most teas are best consumed fresh. If a green tea has gone brown, or an old favorite has started to smell like the spice cupboard, it’s probably time to restock with fresh leaves.
What do you do to troubleshoot a brew gone wrong, or a tea that doesn’t live up to expectations? Let us know in the comments below!
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